•COMING IN SEPTEMBER, 2015•

Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry

by Emery Roth

Monday, March 22, 2010

Spare Parts

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: These aging broken wheels can yet transport. Let us roll them round, finger the dry wood and imagine who last rode them into town when the roads were still dirt, and stones jostled the farmer's way. Even today between the ancient, genteel houses and shops, survivals of that carriage age, the snarling autos slow. They whine and throb but pause for families crossing Main Street munching pastries bought in shops where the farmer or his wife bought a new pair of overalls or a tin bucket or had a harness mended.

By the time the farm ceased operations in the 1960s, wagon wheels were a front yard cliché, but in this blacksmith's shop they've been saved, spare parts, carefully stored above the blacksmith's bench. Did they hang there for 50 years, a quaint souvenir becoming ever more obsolete before the farm stopped, and did they then hang another 50 years forgotten and gathering dust?

Why were they initially saved? How might they have been reused? Where are the steel hoop tyres, or were these straked? (http://www.kismeta.com/diGrasse/this_old_wheel.htm). Were the tyres unrepairable and too valuable to save; traded as scrap for new metal the way horse shoes were recycled? Old carriage and wagon wheels roll us into an economy with very different dynamics from our own but not so bucolic as we might think.

Through much of the 19th century this farm operated in the midst of a thriving iron industry. The traces remain in place names: "Ore Hill," "Iron Mountain." This silent farm lies fifteen minutes by car from the ruins of charcoal ovens, lime kilns, iron furnaces, a major commercial forge. Western Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont were known for their high quality iron. How many layers of middlemen did it take to get the raw iron into the hands of the farmer-blacksmiths of Scarf Mountain Farm? The farmer had neighbors who made their livings in the iron industry. If the farmer didn't make his own ax, it was because he could buy a Collins Ax that kept its edge longer and cost him less. And the ax may have rolled into town along rails that ran across Main Street and somehow connected to the Collins Company a days carriage away in Collinsville, Connecticut. More and more, the world was riding on iron.

But everything was local: mines, lime kilns, charcoal ovens, blast furnaces, foundries, fabrictors, blacksmiths, ferriers, wheelwrights, harness makers. Today iron and steel are exotic; they come from places as far away as China and Russia, and when the steel breaks or rusts to uselessness it will journey as far before it can be reused. A piece of steel may travel through many countries before it is a wrench in my hand. It's sobering to consider a time of such local self-suficiency.